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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Slightly Less Passionate Passion of the Mel

Mel Gibson is re-releasing his film, "The Passion of the Christ." But this time the Passion will be less, well, "passionate." Gibson is triming five minutes of the most extreme violence from the film to make it more palatable to audiences who objected to the grusome depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life on earth.

The day after the Academy Awards (in which "The Passion" was snubbed in all the major categories and nominated in only a few of the minor categories) Gibson was on ABC's "Good Morning America" announcing that his truncated film was being released and emphatically denying that his film was too violent.

As someone who saw "The Passion" in it's original form, I have to disagree with Mel. The film is almost unrelentingly grim in it's depiction of Christ's suffering. Did the historical Jesus suffer? Of course. Flogging and crucificion are horrible ways to die. Gibson said of the original version that it would serve as a reminder for Christians of Christ's suffering and what it really meant for him to die as atonement for mankind.

That makes for fine sentiment and factions of Christians bought into it hook, line and sinker. But viewed in the context of Gibson's other films, I think it says more about Mel's passions than the passion of Christ.

Remember the "Lethal Weapon" movie in which Gibson's charater is strung up, doused with water and then hit with an electric cattle prod? How about "Braveheart" where Gibson's character is tied to the rack, strung up and finally drawn and quartered? And who could forget the graphic cannon ball-decapitation scene in "The Patriot"?

Mel, it seems, has a penchant for depicting the most sadistic of scenes in his films. In "The Passion" he finally found a movie where he could indulge his interest in sadomasochism and remain free of criticism. And if, as some critics charged, "The Passion" was nothing but an epic "snuff" movie, Gibson could wrap himself in the Bible and his ultra-conservative version of Catholicism and accuse his critics of an anti-Christian bias.

"The Passion" also gave Gibson a free pass to express his homophobia. The mincing, effeminate high priest Calephas is Mel's idea of a gay person - and the androgynous character of Satan is another figure in the movie who can (and has been) read as gay by audiences. So in Gibson's universe, gays are either more flamboyant than a busload of drag queens or as evil as Satan. I guess not enough people picked up on Mel's homophobia in "Braveheart" in which the king pushed the prince's male lover to his death from a high castle window. So he chose to make his feelings about gays even more explicit in "The Passion."

But beyond the violence and the homophobia in "The Passion" was something that only occurred to me a few days later as my reaction to the gut-wrenching violence began to subside. In focusing almost exclusively on Christ's death, Gibson left out the essence of Christianity: Christ's teachings. Oh sure there are a few flashback scenes to his ministry ... but these scenes amount to less than the five minutes Gibson cut from his new version.

There's a fascinating book I read several months ago by Karen Armstrong, a former nun who has written on various theological subjects. The book is called The Battle for God and takes a look at the history of fundamentalist movements within the three monotheistic religions. Early on in the book, Armstrong writes that religions have components of logos (the rational teachings) and mythos (the non-rational, mythic beliefs). In Christianity, logos are the teachings of Jesus, perhaps best illustrated by the sermon on the mount and the parables he taught. Then there is the mythos of Christianity: the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection.

The problem with mythos is without logos to act as a counter-balance it presents a distorted view of Christianity where mankind learns that the magical, mystical, and literal deus ex machina play a bigger role in faith than logical thought and reflection. This, then, is the major flaw with Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in whichever version viewers see it.